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The Christian Athlete: Ideals

February 7, 2023 6 min read
By Dr. Luis Fernando Aragón-Vargas Professor of Human Movement Science, University of Costa Rica
An athlete dunking

This article is the sixth in a series of nine on The Christian Athlete, authored by Dr. Luis Fernando Aragón-Vargas, professor of human movement science in the School of Physical Education and Sports at the University of Costa Rica.

Sports are a wonderful inspiration for many of us. Nevertheless, for us who are not so athletic, excellent athletes can seem so removed from normal people, so much more skilled at what they do, so much younger, or faster, or stronger, or in better shape, that after admiring them we can be stopped in our tracks when it comes to imitating them. We realize that we could never do what they do. Unless, that is, there is a different way to follow their example: unless we can imitate them in the way that they allow their sports to support their Christian ideals. Christian leaders, popes, and early Church Fathers saw this opportunity.

For one thing, as we work or study, we can imitate athletes in the way they train and compete. There was an Italian movement from the mid-twentieth century that promoted principles or guidelines for the Christian athlete; these are worth a look, since they could easily be modified for anyone as they perform their various duties.

The Ten Commandments of the Christian athlete:

I. You shall glorify God with your body.
II. You shall place sport at the service of the soul.
III. You shall not allow sport to get in the way of religious, family, or professional duties.
IV. You shall practice your sport to become virtuous.
V. You shall use sport as an instrument for your apostolate.
VI. You shall honor the rules of your sport and respect those who represent them.
VII. You shall be fair and chivalrous with all.
VIII. You shall bear both losses and victories with serenity.
IX. You shall compete with all your energy.
X. You shall honor your own sport teams and associations.”1
In the same vein, the following exhortation to all Christians from St. John Chrysostom (347-407) is inspired by the image of the athlete:
“Who will be capable of fighting, since no one trains for the fight? Can an athlete defeat his opponent and obtain the prize in the Olympic Games without having been trained in the art of fighting from his teenage years? Shouldn’t we be training every day, learning to compete and to endure? Don’t you see that athletes, intending to best their competitors, train themselves by running with a bag full of sand to increase their strength? Many also train in practice fights with their companions, preparing for the real fights with their adversaries. Imitate those athletes and train yourselves in the battle for virtue… Let us not be lazy in the race for virtue, but instead let us prepare with determination and fervor for these noble and glorious battles. We may grow weary and suffer for a brief time, but in the end we will conquer and gain crowns that do not wither and that will last forever.”2
Any comparison between the high ideals of sports and the Christian calling should include the first three verses of Hebrews chapter 12. The “great cloud of witnesses” in those verses refers to a list of biblical heroes, but the text clearly uses the language of sport to inspire the reader:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Another dimension of life that touches us all is suffering. Here is a message from Basil of Caesarea, an early Church Father, who uses the image of the athlete as an example for enduring suffering, not for its own sake, but with one’s sights set on greater things:
“The valiant athlete, having done his utmost in the battle for the devout life, must bear with courage the blows of his opponent in the hope of glory and of victory. In gymnastic competitions, those who are trained in endurance are not discouraged by one blow, but immediately stage a counter-attack against their adversary. In their desire for glory they despise their suffering. In the same way, if a fervent person is given a blow by an event in life that happens to him, it does not destroy his joy: because suffering produces patience; patience leads to character; character leads to hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:3-5).3
In the preceding text, suffering might mean anything from a stomachache to a serious injury. But for the Christian, persecution even to the point of martyrdom is always a possibility. In the following text, St. Cyprian of Carthage (252 A.D.) compares the agonem secularem (the conventional sports competition of the time) and the agonem sublimis (a sublime struggle in the Christian fight of faith).

“Men are tested and prepared for secular combat, and they think it a great glory if they happen to be crowned with the people looking on and the emperor present. But now see a yet greater and more glorious contest for the reward of the heavenly crown, with God looking on our struggles, keeping his eyes fixed upon those he calls his sons and taking pleasure in the spectacle of our combat. God watches our battle for the faith; his angels watch us, and Christ watches us. How great is the dignity of glory, and how great is our happiness  to struggle and to be crowned in the presence of God as our Protector and Christ as our Judge.

Let us arm ourselves with all strength, beloved brothers, and let us be prepared for faith’s struggle with mind incorrupt, faith whole, and courage undaunted. Let the army of God proceed to the line of battle apportioned to us… If the day of persecution should come upon us, by thinking and meditating upon these things, the soldier of Christ, trained by his precepts and warnings, will not shrink from the fight, but will be prepared to gain the crown.”4
Okay: Thinking about these things and discussing them has its importance; but there comes a time for action. Here are some final words from Pope Pius XII to a group of men engaged in apostolic work.
“The time for reflection and projects is over. It is now time for action. The tough race mentioned by St. Paul is in progress. This is the hour of intense effort. Even a few moments could decide victory. So run in this ideal championship, such that you may conquer a more noble applause; Run so that you may gain the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24).”5

1 Matteo Monaco, “La teoria dell’educazione cattolica in Italia nel secondo dopoguerra”. [Theory of Catholic education in Italy after World War II]. In J. R. Carbó (Ed.), Cuerpo y espíritu: deporte y cristianismo en la historia. UCAM Servicio de Publicaciones (2021).

2 John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew.

3 Basil of Caesarea, Letter to the Romans.

4 St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letters.

5 Pius XII, in Monaco, Op cit., 1956.

To view the complete series with full citations as hosted by the University of Costa Rica, click here.

Two rowers

Next: Me, Myself, and I

The life of an athlete is demanding, and the temptation to become overly focused on oneself is always present.

Me, Myself, and I

Previous: Where is Your Strength?

Elite athletes are characterized by their self-discipline and willpower. Christian athletes know, however, that their true strength comes from the Lord.

Where is Your Strength?

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